You’re at the park with your French Bulldog “Simon” one day and see someone pointing what looks like a small garage door opener at their golden retriever. Wondering if you stepped onto a movie set, you watch for a minute to see what’s going on. The golden retriever sits, a loud click is heard and a treat is given. And you are left wondering what just happened.
The principles behind clicker training were first introduced to the world in 1910 by Col. Konrad Most in his book Training Dogs – A Manual. Originally published in German, it wasn’t until 1954 that it was translated into English. The first dog trainer to use a clicker was Keller Breland, who introduced the concept to the marine animal world in the 1950s. Moving through history, in 1984 Karen Pryor wrote Don’t Shoot the Dog, which attracted the attention of Gary Wilkes, who was the first trainer since Breland to use clicker training extensively. With thanks to the Internet, clicker training has spread rapidly through the dog-training world and become increasingly popular.
The concept behind clicker training is to associate the ‘click’ noise with the behavior you want your dog to have. Summary: One, puppy does something that you want him to, two, ‘click’ the clicker, and three, give a treat. The goal is to push the clicker at the exact moment Simon is doing the desired behavior. Your puppy then associates the click with what he has done something correctly and he will get a treat. There is a differing of opinion on how to get Simon to, for example, sit in the first place. One view is to attach a verbal command; the other is to either lure Simon into sitting, or wait until Simon sits on his own and then mark it with a click and treat.
Advocates of clicker training claim that it significantly cuts down in training time and that the clicking noise is pleasant to dogs. It takes less time to ‘click’ then it does to say ‘good dog’ and the click gives the dog the instantaneous feedback so there is no question which behavior you are praising him for. Once Simon has made the association in his mind that the ‘click’ means he has done something right, you can mark nearly any behavior. In this method your only tools are the clicker and treats; it is entirely positive reinforcement.
The critics of clicker training claim that any animal that is trained by a clicker will not respond without one. This requires the owner to keep a clicker with him or her at all times, or risk having Simon not listen to him or her when the clicker is forgotten at home. It could present a safety problem, being that other people without a clicker cannot give Simon basic commands. If you do not click the clicker at the exact moment, you could have just taught Simon to halfway sit down, or almost slow down. While the preciseness is a benefit because it is like taking a snapshot of the behavior, it also offers a smaller window for errors.
Clicker training is very popular right now, and it may continue to be, or it may become dormant again. Either training with a clicker, or with verbal commands, or with ‘reward words’ to signify a desired behavior instead of a clicker, all of these are part of positive reinforcement training, which Simon is sure to appreciate. All forms of training still require patience, and consistency. And to remember that just as we have ‘off’ days, so to may Simon have off days. Don’t give up; even if your canine friend is ready to drive you up the walls, you can succeed in successfully training him.